Portland, Ore. — Bill Blanchard was born into the locksmith business. His family opened its first key shop in Southwest Portland in 1987. He started working for his family when he was just 6 years old.
“Locksmithing is something that you have to be passionate about,” said Blanchard, who now runs the family business, AMAX Security Solutions.
A few years ago, Blanchard says the industry took an unexpected turn. Legitimate locksmiths found themselves competing against companies they’d never heard of.
Suddenly, Internet searches turned up hundreds of locksmiths in Portland.
“The scammers have just changed the game,” said Blanchard. “They will create an online presence and market themselves based on your reputation.”
Problem is: Most of those locksmiths are not locksmiths at all. They are call centers.
“It’s become a pyramid scheme of locksmiths, each one independent from the next, but all still interconnected,” explained Blanchard.
A search on the review website Yelp.com showed more than a dozen locksmiths located in Southwest Portland.
“AAA Locksmith All or” was listed at 1700 SW Jefferson Street. We found a vacant office at that location with a “For Lease” sign posted on the door.
Just down the street, Yelp.com showed “Locksmith Portland” located at 1728 Southwest Jefferson St. That was a Subway restaurant.
“15 Min Emergency Locksmith” was listed at 1200 Southwest Main Street. That was a church.
“It allows you to list a fake address to give a consumer the false sense of security that they believe they are calling somebody that is near them, and they’re not really calling somebody who’s near them,” said Blanchard.
These call centers often send out poorly trained subcontractors to help open your car or your home. Once they arrive, consumers complain that many online locksmiths jack up the price.
In 2013, the Oregon Department of Justice warned consumers to be on alert for these bogus locksmiths.
“You may be quoted a price on the phone, but when the locksmith arrives, often in an unmarked vehicle, he often wants significantly more money or claims to only accept payments in cash,” wrote Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.
To test this scenario, we locked our keys in a 1998 Honda Civic. We got three quotes by phone from legitimate locksmiths of $49.95, $70 and $80.
Then, we found an online locksmith that offered a flat $14 service call. Popping the lock would be another $29, according to the company website.
The operator at 24/7 Locksmith said he would dispatch a technician to our location. He didn’t ask what type of car we had nor did he provide an estimate on cost.
Within 20 minutes, a man in an unmarked truck arrived. He had a pit bull in the front seat.
“Are you looking for a locksmith?” the man said. I nodded, yes. “I’m your guy,” said the driver.
After a quick inspection, the man wrote down a quote on an invoice sheet. He wanted $159 to unlock our car, far more than legitimate locksmiths.
The technician tried to justify the price by saying he arrived quickly.
When asked for identification the man, Michael Notas, showed us his Oregon driver’s license and a California locksmith license due to expire on February 29, 2016.
State regulators said Notas is not a certified locksmith in Oregon, nor does he have a Construction Contractors Board license. He should not be working as a locksmith in Oregon.
Records show Notas is a convicted felon. He pleaded guilty to felony DUI- Causing Bodily Injury in California in 2009.
In 2014, Multnomah County prosecutors charged Notas with Felon in Possession of a Restricted Weapon. He had a dagger, according to court documents.
There are excellent locksmiths that work out of cars and vans, although most of them have vehicles with a company name.
When confronted with a KGW camera and microphone, Notas said he needed to call his boss.
“I tried to charge him $159, like everybody, all day long,” Notas tried to explain. “He is the guy from the news!”
To protect yourself from bogus locksmiths: